[Ppnews] Starving in Solitary: California Prison Hunger Strikers’ Health Declines

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 14 10:22:38 EDT 2011

Starving in Solitary: California Prison Hunger 
Strikers’ Health Declines, But State Will Not Negotiate

July 14, 2011
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

It’s been two weeks since a group of inmates in 
Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit 
stopped eating. Their hunger strike was launched 
to protest 
in solitary confinement in California’s oldest 
and largest supermax, where they spend at least 
22 1/2 hours a day locked down in their cells, 
and the remaining time alone in concrete exercise 
yards. Many have been in the SHU for years or 
even decades, with little hope of ever leaving it 
alive–an extreme situation that, to their minds, called for extreme measures.

Since the strike began, it has spread to 13 of 
the state’s 33 prisons, where–according to the 
California Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation’s own figures–some 6,600 have 
refused at least some meals. But the heart of the 
protest remains in the SHUs at Corcoran State 
Prison and at Pelican Bay, where a core group of 
several dozen men say they are “committed to 
taking this all the way to the death, if 
necessary,” according to strike organizer Todd Ashker.

Information from this prison-within-a-prison is 
by nature difficult to come by and impossible to 
verify, but news of the strikers trickles out 
through family members and supporters. Today, the 
Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition reports that 
it received an “urgent update from medical staff” 
at Pelican Bay. According to the coalition, a 
”source with access to the current medical 
conditions who prefers to be unnamed” said: “The 
prisoners are progressing rapidly to the organ 
damaging consequences of dehydration. They are 
not drinking water and have decompensated 
rapidly. A few have tried to sip water but are so 
sick that they are vomiting it back up. Some are 
in renal failure and have been unable to make 
urine for 3 days. Some are having measured blood 
sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not 
treated.” Family members who visited SHU 
prisoners over the weekend 
reported that they are visibly thinner, sicker, and weaker.

How long does it take for a man on hunger strike 
to starve to death? The answer depends on what 
kind of physical shape that man was in to begin 
with–but in any case, it doesn’t take long. The 
body begins feeding on itself after just 24 hours 
without food. It usually begins to show severe 
symptoms of starvation, including organ failure, 
about five weeks. Without fluids, death comes 
much sooner, typically in 
than two weeks. In 1981, it took the ten Irish 
Republican hunger strikers (who were drinking 
water) from <http://www.irishhungerstrike.com/>46 
to 73 days to die in Britain’s Maze Prison outside Belfast.

Will it come to this is California? Based on the 
response so far from the state of California, it appears that it could.

The hunger strikers’ list of 
“core demands” is far from radical. In large 
part, it is based on the recommendations of the 
bipartisan U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in 
Prisons, which in 2006 called for substantial 
reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. 
Segregation from the general prison population, 
the commission said, should be “a last resort,” 
and even in segregation units, isolation should 
be mitigated and terms should be limited. Beyond 
this, the strikers want an end to group 
punishments, and to the system of gang 
“validation” and “debriefing” by which prisoners 
are held in the SHU indefinitely, and released 
only when they “snitch” on others. And they want 
provision of “adequate food” and “constructive 
programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.”

Supporters say that the demands are negotiable, 
and the strikers have communicated that they 
would welcome outside mediators. But the 
California Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation ”is not going to be coerced or 
manipulated,” spokesperson Terry Thornton told 
York Times, explaining the CDCR’s steadfast 
position against negotiating with the hunger strikers.

The responses thus far from the CDCR have been 
uniformly hostile and sometimes dismissive. 
Thornton told a 
public radio reporter that prisoners might be 
clandestinely eating. “Some inmates have been 
seen eating food items that they’ve purchased 
from the canteen,” she claimed. “Some have not. 
Some inmates are refusing to be weighed. That may 
be an indication that they are eating. It’s 
really hard to say because they’re refusing that medical evaluation.”

California prisons are being monitored by the 
federal government, in response conditions so 
poor as to be “intolerable with the concept of 
human dignity,” according to a recent landmark 
decision by the Supreme Court. But the 
court-appointed federal receiver in charge of 
prison health care, likewise dismissed reports 
that some prisoners’ health problems were growing 
dire. ”I think the information that’s in the news 
release is largely exaggerated,” Nancy Kincaid 
the radio station. “At this time we have no 
inmates who are refusing liquids and we have no 
report of inmates who are refusing medication. 
There are inmates who are refusing medical care. 
They have the right to do that.”

Thornton has also told the 
that the prisoners should make their demands 
heard through other means. “There are appropriate 
ways of registering your concerns,” she said, 
”and even though this hunger strike has been 
peaceful, this is not the way to register those 
concerns.” But prisoners say they have pursued 
these other means, and found them futile. “The 
basis for this protest has come about after over 
25 years, some of us 30, some up to 40 years, of 
being subjected to these conditions,” 
Ashker said in a statement released by lawyers. 
“Of our 602 appeals, numerous court challenges have gotten nowhere.”

In addition, some of the prisoners have been in 
the SHU long enough to remember the 
strike that took place exactly 10 years ago, when 
600 Pelican Bay prisoners stopped eating for 10 
days, and the CDCR agreed to reviews its policies 
on gang validation and debriefing. A decade 
later, inmates say, virtually nothing has changed.

“They are protesting conditions that they say are 
torturous and inhumane,” Molly Porzig of the 
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition told 
the Chronicle. “They feel the Department of 
Corrections  and Rehabilitation will not make any 
meaningful or long-term change until they start 
dying, and they’re willing to take it there.”

Asked to comment on the strike, David Fathi, 
director of the ACLU National Prison Project, 
said: ““It’s testimony to the suffering caused by 
solitary confinement that some prisoners are 
apparently willing to starve themselves to death 
rather than continue to live under those conditions.”

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